I’ve been a fan of chef and culinary scientist J. Kenji Lopez-Alt ever since his first bestselling cookbook, “The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science,” was published in 2015. So like so many others, I couldn’ t wait to get my hands on his highly anticipated follow-up, “The Wok: Recipes and Techniques” (Norton, $50), which hit store shelves on March 8.
It was worth the wait.
The 658-page cookbook grew out of a chapter on the wok that had been edited out of his first cookbook. It makes a compelling case that, when it comes to producing fast, flavorful and versatile meals, nothing beats stir-frying in the traditional Chinese cooking vessel.
Along with an introductory chapter on how to buy, season, clean and maintain a wok, it includes instructions on knife skills and easy-to-follow wok techniques for a variety of meats and vegetables. It also boasts more than 200 recipes — many with mouthwatering photos — for stir-fries, rice, noodles and simple no-cook side dishes such as smashed cucumber salad.
I test-drove the cookbook with one of my favorite Chinese recipes, Dan Dan Noodles, which Lopez-Alt writes “are to Sichuan what the hamburger is to the United States: They’re ubiquitous, there are certain expectations, but there are no hard and fast rules other than the basic ingredients” — noodles, chile oil, pickled Sichuan vegetables, vinegar and lip- and tongue-numbing Sichuan peppercorns.
Like many traditional Chinese foods, this dish involves more than a few ingredients, but not so much as to be intimidating. Some might be unfamiliar; this was the first time I cooked with preserved mustard root, for instance.
The crushed Sichuan peppercorn will add a tingling, numbing sensation on the tongue and lips known as “ma” in Chinese.
DAN DAN NOODLES
- 2 teaspoons red Sichuan peppercorns
- 2 tablespoons Chinese sesame paste or 4 teaspoons tahini or unsweetened peanut butter mixed with 2 teaspoons roasted sesame oil
- 2 tablespoons warm water
- 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons Chinkiang or balsamic vinegar
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1/2 cup Sichuan chili oil with its sediment
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh garlic (about 2 medium cloves)
- 1 tablespoon peanut or other neutral oil
- 6 ounces ground or finely chopped pork
- 2 ounces minced preserved mustard root or stem
- 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce or shoyu
- 1 pound fresh wheat noodles
- 4 ounces fresh greens, such as spinach or baby bok choy, optional
- 2 ounces mung bean sprouts, optional
- 1/4 cup roasted or fried peanuts, gently crushed in a mortar and pestle
- 4 to 5 scallions, thinly sliced
Prepare peppercorns: Toast Sichuan peppercorns in a dry wok over high heat until fragrant, about 1 minute. Transfer to mortar and pestle or spice grinder and grind into a fine powder; set aside.
Make sauce: Combine sesame paste and water in medium bowl and stir until completely smooth.
Add soy sauce, vinegar, sugar, chili oil, garlic and half of the ground Sichuan peppercorns and stir until homogenous and sugar is dissolved. Divide sauce evenly among 4 individual bowls or pour into one large serving bowl to share.
Make pork: Heat wok over high heat until lightly smoking. Add 1 tablespoon oil and swirl to coat. Add pork and cook, stirring and tossing and using a spatula to break up pork until it is no longer pink, about 1 minute.
Add preserved mustard root and cook, stirring and tossing until all excess moisture has evaporated and the mixture starts to stick to the wok, about 1 minute longer. Add a big pinch of ground Sichuan peppercorns and toss to combine.
Swirl in the wine vinegar and soy sauce around the edges of the wok and continue to cook, stirring and tossing, until wine and soy sauce have completely evaporated, about 3 minutes. Transfer pork mixture to a small bowl.
Prepare noodles: Bring 3 quarts of lightly salted water to a boil in the wok or in a large pot over high heat. When water is boiling, add the noodles, greens and bean sprouts, if using, and cook according to the package directions until barely cooked through, just a couple minutes.
Finish dish: Drain noodles, reserving some of the cooking liquid, and divide evenly among the individual bowls or transfer to the large serving bowl. Add a few tablespoons of cooking liquid to each bowl. Spoon the pork mixture on top.
Sprinkle with remaining ground Sichuan peppercorns and the sliced scallions. Serve immediately.
— “The Wok: Recipes and Techniques” by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt (Norton, March 8, 2022, $50)